Skills deficit needs to be urgently tackled to get to net zero

15th October 2020

In its latest briefing out today, 'Upskilling the UK workforce for the 21st century', the Aldersgate Group calls for urgent action to plug the deficit in skills that currently undermines the growth of low carbon supply chains across the UK economy. The Group calls in particular for a new low carbon skills strategy that embeds sustainability across the national curriculum and teacher training standards, supports higher and further education institutions to better meet the needs of local employers and updates apprenticeship standards and mid-career reskilling qualifications to equip the workforce with the skills needed in a net zero emissions economy.

The UK economy has long faced significant challenges in terms of skill shortages and regional inequalities, with some 91% of businesses recently saying they face a skills deficit and the economies of Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East, and the West Midlands growing at less than half the rate of London’s economy between 1998 and 2016 [2]. The COVID-19 crisis has amplified these challenges and brought with it a huge increase in unemployment and in particular, youth unemployment. Against this backdrop but also recognising the significant job creation potential provided by the transition to a net zero emissions economy [3], the Aldersgate Group argues today that low carbon skills provision must become a national policy priority.

Building on the Government’s recent announcement to expand post-18 education and training, the Group calls for a comprehensive low carbon skills strategy based on five key recommendations:
  1. Environmental sustainability and the net zero goal should be fully embedded in the national curriculum across all stages of the education system from primary to tertiary education. This should include a requirement on Further and Higher Education Institutions to put in place skills’ action plans to ensure students are provided with the right practical skills when they leave and to address the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in STEM subjects that will be increasingly key in a net zero emissions economy;
  2. This focus on sustainability should be fully reflected in teaching qualifications and the governance of the education system. With 75% of teachers saying they haven’t received adequate training to educate students about climate change [4], the Aldersgate Group calls for teaching standards and the Initial Teacher Training Content Framework to be updated to equip teachers with the right knowledge. The briefing also argues that regulatory bodies such as Ofsted should be required to place greater emphasis on quality of sustainability teaching as part of their assessment of schools and other educational institutions.
  3. Higher Education and Further Education Institutions should be supported and encouraged to tailor courses, training and qualifications that more closely match the needs of local employers and low carbon job creation. The employer-led STEM education and training curriculum put in place by the Newcastle College Energy Academy, which is training future engineers and technicians in the renewable energy sector, provides a good example in this regard.
  4. Funding, research and development support, and business partnerships need to be increasingly targeted to educational institutions that are not located in the ‘Golden Triangle’ between Oxford, Cambridge and London and which have received less support to date. This is essential to ensure that education institutions across the country are well equipped to provide the low carbon skills required in their area. Businesses in the offshore wind sector which have regularly supported local University Technical Colleges and universities in the areas they operate provide a good precedent for other businesses to follow.
  5. To have an effective net zero education system, the UK needs to reform its approach to apprenticeship standards and mid-career reskilling. Apprenticeship standards should require and incentivise businesses to provide their apprentices with core low carbon skills that go beyond a business’ immediate and short-term priorities. Recognising the complexities of mid-career reskilling, government policy should support Higher Education Institutions to develop new, short-term training and qualifications on low carbon skills to make it easier for those already on the job market to transition towards employment opportunities in a net zero emissions economy.   
  6. Beyond putting in place a comprehensive low carbon skills strategy, the Aldersgate Group calls for progress in two complementary areas that are essential to grow low carbon supply chains:
  7. Building on recent policy announcements in areas such as in offshore wind, the Government should progress work to put in place a comprehensive policy plan that will put the UK on a credible pathway towards its net zero target [5]. A clear suite of policies will be essential to grow demand in low carbon infrastructure, goods and services, with positive knock on impact on job creation and demand for low carbon skills. This should include rapid regulatory and fiscal policy decisions to grow private investment in ‘low-regret’ areas such as buildings, surface transport, power and waste. It should also include an accelerated innovation programme to trial critical technologies to cut emissions in more complex parts of the economy such as heavy industry, agriculture and long-distance transport.
  8.  Local bodies must be better empowered to support low carbon investment, job creation and skills provision in their areas given that they are often better placed to understand local needs. Building on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, local bodies should be provided with greater policy autonomy as well as multi-year funding to support investment in critical local projects such as low carbon transport and energy infrastructure. Creating a National Investment Bank - with a mandate to grow low carbon investments in regions most in need of economic regeneration – and setting up a National Skills Commission to co-ordinate the development of the UK’s skill strategy between national government, businesses and local bodies could play a key role in growing low carbon supply chains and skills across the country.

Nick Molho, Executive Director of the Aldersgate Group, said: “Skills policy has been a missing link in the UK’s clean growth ambitions for too long. The move to a net zero emissions economy comes with a significant job creation potential which is matched by growing public enthusiasm to play an active role in this transition. Together with putting together a comprehensive policy plan to put the UK on track for its target, government must prioritise the development of an ambitious and carefully co-ordinated low carbon skills strategy and ensure that education institutions across the country are supported in this process.” 

Iain Patton, CEO at EAUC, said: “The Higher and Further Education sectors have been taking steps towards Net Zero and slowly bridging the skills gap for many years. Recently, we have seen a huge step forwards in this sector on the Net Zero agenda, with a new education Climate Commission creating climate action roadmaps and the sector working collaboratively to ensure education is ahead of the curve. The skills disconnect now needs to take a similar sized step to ensure young people are receiving future-proofed qualifications, and those in work and unemployed are upskilled to maximise the opportunities a  low carbon economy will bring.”

Iain Patton added: “The suggestions made by Aldersgate Group in this policy briefing, which we have fed into, chime well with our own findings (‘Future Graduate Skills: a scoping study’ is released on 14 October). We must redress the decades long disconnect between skills provision from education providers, and the skills required by employers. Post-pandemic recovery and the race to Net Zero have created the impetus to do just this. We will be working with the education sector on skills action plans, the embedding of sustainability into all courses and a new skills-based kickstart scheme. We will also work closely with business, and push the Government to create the skills strategies and Commission required to make this a success nationwide.”

Lexie Jones, CEO at Change Agents UK, said: “We strongly support the call for a national skills strategy that integrates efforts from government, business and the education sector to focus on the delivery of the challenging targets for Net Zero and the Sustainable Development Goals. Young people who were already facing a precarious future have seen this further compromised by the COVID19 pandemic – we must act now to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and experience they will need to succeed as we enter this most challenging global period.”

Professor Aled Jones, Director of Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “The Aldersgate Group highlight the vital work that is required to upskill the UK workforce to ensure it is resilient to the changes that are coming over the next three decades. By transitioning our economy to net zero the UK will unlock a swathe of opportunities that we will only be able to realise if we have the skills needed to deliver. At Anglia Ruskin University we have embedded sustainability across all our courses through our academic regulations, but this needs to happen right across further and higher education so that we remain world leading.”

Mark Essex, Director of Skills at KPMG UK, said: “We echo the call for a low-carbon skills strategy. The skills needed to deliver a net-zero economy are vital to help boost productivity and reduce unemployment. This is particularly important for those entering the job market today, facing an uncertain future.  Whether in manufacturing for the renewable energy supply chain, or converting our stock of housing to net-zero heating and cooking, these are nationally distributed, high-skilled jobs.”

Michelle Hubert, Acting Head of Public Affairs and Policy at National Grid, said: “We’ve made real progress towards our decarbonisation goals, for example, last year, we saw zero carbon electricity outstrip fossil fuels for the first time. This is really exciting but there is still a long way to go. At National Grid, we’re innovating and investing to help with that journey. But the only way we can do it is if we have the right people on board. We need a diverse workforce across the energy sector, with a diverse set of skills if we’re going to deliver on the UK’s ambitions.”

Olivia Whitlam, Head of Sustainability at Siemens Plc, said: “We welcome Aldersgate Group’s briefing on skills, which rightly highlights the urgency of tackling skills gaps across the country. Siemens has a long history of promoting skills development in the UK. As we look to future, it is imperative to develop an inclusive and long-term approach to deliver the green skills we will need to enable us to decarbonise, and to build a fairer society.”

Larissa Kennedy, NUS and SOS-UK President, said: “According to the Local Government Association, in 2018 there were 185,000 full-time workers in England’s low-carbon and renewable energy economy, but that could rise to 694,000 by 2030, and 1.2 million by 2050, but only if we close the skills gap. Covid has hastened the decline of jobs in high carbon sectors, so we now urgently need the Government to take action and support our further education sector to provide reskilling opportunities and deliver a just transition for people across the UK. This important report provides a road map for immediate action.”

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